By Pamela Pritt
(Beckley) Register-Herald Reporter
CHARLESTON — The House Committee on Education moved a bill Thursday morning that will allow security personnel hired by county sheriffs’ department to carry weapons in schools. The law enforcement agency would provide salaries and benefits, as well as assume liability for the security personnel.
Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner spoke in favor of the move. Tanner said having armed security personnel in the school would decrease response time for law enforcement officers. The sheriff said that in 100 percent of school shootings from Columbine in the 1990s to Sandy Hook in 2012, once an officer was on the scene no more loss of student life occurred.
Tanner said security personnel could neither arrest nor detain anyone since they would not be certified officers. Those guards do not carry handcuffs, he said.
The Raleigh County Board of Education does reimburse the sheriff’s department for one of the three security personnel Tanner has in schools. None of those guards currently carry weapons, Tanner said.
Student safety may the primary reason for this law, but Tanner said the extra benefit of having a security guard in the school has been that they also act as counselors.
“We know who the problem children are,” Tanner said. “We are having a great impact on students in regard to bullying.
“We have a great rapport with the students that doesn’t otherwise exist. We’re already finding we get tremendous feedback from students about planned events such as fights and vandalism.”
Tanner said the country has had too many incidents like Columbine, the Colorado school where 12 students and a teacher were killed by a pair of students, who then killed themselves, and Sandy Hook, the elementary school in Connecticut where 20 students and six adults were killed by a local man who entered the school through a window.
Raleigh County has recently had a spate of school incidents, including a December Facebook threat by a student at Shady Spring High School, and, more recently, three bomb threats at two schools in one day, Tanner said. No loss of life occurred at any of the local schools, and Tanner said having an officer there was a benefit.
“The primary point is protecting students,” he said.
Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, a former principal, said schools should use whatever means necessary to keep students safe.
“I think anything we can do at any time to protect students and has the ability to be time responsive is an asset,” Perry said. “(The security guard having) the gun ought to make students and parents alike feel safe.”
Raleigh County Delegate Linda Sumner introduced the legislation.
Sumner said the measure is a bipartisan effort to bring peace of mind for parents sending their children to school.
“All sides believe (this) is a safe and practical way to protect our children,” Sumner said. “The Legislature understands that the safety and welfare of the citizens of this state are inextricably dependent upon assurances of the safety for their children attending and persons employed by schools in this state.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said teachers go out of their way to protect their students and want to ensure that the school and the classroom are the safest environments they can possibly be for their students.
“Most would agree that only trained people should carry guns in the classroom,” Lee said.
The security personnel will likely be retired law enforcement officers who are qualified to carry weapons and trained to respond to high-tension situations.
Delegate Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, also sponsored the House bill, which moves to the House Committee on the Judiciary. Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, has introduced similar legislation in the upper chamber. That bill moved from the Senate Committee on Education to the Committee on the Judiciary Thursday.